Eric Potts
First Family
Opera House, Manchester

David Dale and Drew Christie as the Ugly Sisters and Louie Spence as Dandini

Oh no it can’t be panto time again? Oh yes it can and First Family’s latest version of Cinderella has just opened at the Opera House in Manchester.

This is a brilliant show for all the family and is great value entertainment. Every element we have come to expect from these annual occasions at the Opera House is in place again this time.

The confection that writer Eric Potts has conjured for us this year involves Baron Hardup, his put-upon daughter Cinderella and her step sisters Beatrice and Eugenie, or, as the audience comes to know, them ugly and even uglier.

The storyline keeps pretty close to the traditional version where Prince Charming meets and then loses Cinderella and finally finds her again.

Along the way, if you add in the servant Buttons, who is in unrequited love with Cinders, and the campest aid de camp in Dandini that this reviewer has ever seen, you more or less have the entire story. Of course this is not to forget the Fairy Godmother who offers some magic to transform the servant girl Cinderella into a princess for the royal bride-finding ball.

All the leading performers have their moments to shine. Top Dancing on Ice and Emmerdale star Suzanne Shaw as Cinderella is a feisty heroine who never quite gives up hope even in the darker moments of the plot. She has a very pleasing singing voice and engaging stage presence and connected with the audience right from her first entrance. Tam Ryan has played Buttons before and has a very warm comedic style which also evokes a big reaction from the audience.

He trod the line between believing in the ridiculous story he was selling and sending the whole thing up very credibly and had some great one-liners along the way. The best of these was perhaps the famous Bob Monkhouse line about how he was laughed at when he said he wanted to be a comedian but noting “ they’re not laughing now “. The Ugly Sisters were very effectively portrayed by experienced cabaret stars David Dale and Drew Christie. They had a suitably broad physical style and plenty of double entendres and totally outrageous costumes. This reviewers’ favourite was in the ball scene where one had a gown with tea cups and a giant tea pot sewn in and the other had an absurd number of giant cakes on his bodice.

What marked out this Cinderella as particularly unusual was the prince’s assistant Dandini, who was superbly played by Louie Spence from TV's Pineapple Studios fame. It is unusual for that character to be quite the star which he was on this occasion. From his first entrance where he did the splits to his frenetic and extremely amusing dancing at every conceivable moment, the energy he brought was supremely infectious. He lifted the whole proceedings just by being on the stage. He also led various dance sequences with the talented chorus, including a brilliant funky soft shoe tap number in the second act to rapturous applause.

But the other leads were also on top form. Fairy Godmother Tania Newton had perhaps the best singing voice on offer and a charming presence.

The distinguished stage actor David Fleeshman was clearly enjoying his lovely comic moments as Baron Hardup. His standout sequence was in the homage to Abbott and Costello style cross talk. This was where he had to misunderstand what Buttons was saying about three women who were called respectively who, what and I don’t know. Perhaps this verbal humour went above the heads of the many young children in the audience but it was very much appreciated by their parents and grandparents. George Wood was a solid support as the Prince Charming and also had a very strong singing voice.

This panto delivered just what the audience wanted on a wintry Manchester night. There were plenty of look behind yous and oh no it isn’t oh yes it is moments, including a delightfully silly one with a spider, Baron Hardup and the Ugly Sisters. The transformation scene where Cinders gets togged up to go to the ball was as well done as we have come to expect from First Family.

This reviewer didn’t even spot when the real Cinderella must have left the stage to come back in her silver gown. The tableau with the silver framed coach lead off to the ball by donkeys was a coup de theatre. In the second act an unexpected ballet sequence in the wood diverted us where the dancers were giant mice, foxes and a badger or two. Throughout the evening the dancing was varied and suitably energetic. Ballroom styles alternated with a jazzy kick and strut and even some folk inspired sequences. The chorus generally acquitted themselves with honour. Costumes were suitably dazzling with vivid colours and tassles frock coats and fur lined hats much in evidence. Settings had a cartoon feel with chandeliers columns and a giant clock in the ball scene among the most skilfully realised.

There were also plenty of appropriate local jokes which is something that the writer Eric Potts prides himself upon including. He has written 8 pantos this year and his local research really paid off with comments about Manchester United and a prize of gaining a flat in Salford Quays particularly standing out. Even the traditional children on stage routine was very well judged and stayed the right side of sickly sweet and embarrassing. Director George Wood kept the pace going very well and the band under the baton of musical director Steve Power added to the richness of the experience on offer. The audience leapt to their feet when required to in the community singing segment in the second half which was a clear tribute to the entertainers on stage. The roman candles which ignited at the end of the finale were a great way to conclude the proceedings and crystallised the feel good factor this show engendered.

Pantomime is often a child’s very first taste of theatre and if the audience reaction on exit the night this reviewer attended is anything to go by most of the young people there will definitely be back for more.

Reviewer: Andrew Edwards

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